One of India’s pioneering randonneurs, Divya Tate’s name has become synonymous with cycling. Decades of determined pursuit has brought her international accolades, great friendships, and most importantly, deep personal fulfillment.
But it isn’t just that. What is immediately, and most disarmingly, affecting about Divya Tate is her sunny attitude. When you meet her, you meet a person exuding a unique mix of calm, warmth, and baked-in toughness. It is an amalgamation of these traits that has defined Tate all her life and propelled her to traverse its ups and downs in a way only a dedicated athlete can. And this is the Tate you see everywhere – in her writing, in her laughter-filled interviews, in her photographs, and needless to say, on the road riding her bike. With her, cycling is as much about the wind in the hair and the smiles on faces passing by, as it is about sweat, grit, and muscle strength.
Watch her recorded Live Session with Living it! PassionTalk with UltraCyclist Tate.
Tate’s story of biking brilliance actually begins on the eddies of a second wind. A lot of us find varied hobbies and interests in our childhood and watch it taper off as we rise through school. Tate’s fascination with cycling sustained well at the Hindon Air Force Station, Ghaziabad, where she first discovered her love for cycling at age 9. The stall came in 1976 when her home shifted to Mumbai, a city deemed unfit for a kid on a bicycle, and her bike was sold off.
A long overdue reconnect with the cycle happened about 25 years ago, when she shifted back to Pune. Divya Tate entertained that old pull within a month of moving by picking up a basic little cycle for INR 600. “This must have been 1991 or 1992,” she recalls. “Poona was fabulous; it was like a small town then. I lived in Aundh, which was like the edge of the city, beyond which there was nothing.”
The almost-countryside landscape of old Pune fuelled Tate’s deep-seated love for the outdoors, and her cycling habit gradually picked up speed. What was initially commutes to-and-fro work (Tate is a trained architect with an 8-year past work experience in the field), and general biking trips around the beautiful neighbourhood, slowly crystallized into a solid appetite for long-distance riding!
The first 17 years of this revival were marked by happy exploration and a stark lack of company of other bikers. “I was always OK to cycle on my own, but initially, I didn’t see anybody in my socio-economic station who used to cycle. In India, cycling is looked at as a necessity; it was the poor who cycled. The middle class looked down upon it,” Tate opines. “But, I didn’t mind at all that there were no gears or infrastructure to support cycling. I was doing it purely for joy.”
What powered Tate’s pioneering effort in cycling is the fact that it was then and has always been unshakeable. In a decade-and-a-half of lonely rides devoid of fellow cyclists or mentors, she rose by setting and pushing her own limits. On her trips abroad, she continued to cycle, picking up tips along the way, basking in the advantages of more mature cycling environments. “It isn’t all smooth sailing, of course; there will be failures. But when you do push through a limit, you realize that there are no limits. And that is transformational!”
A shift in the Indian cycling landscape kicked Tate’s gear to the next level too, and it was made possible by the rising import of high-tech cycles. The activity took on a somewhat elitist bent, thus becoming “cool”, with the first long-distance event of India dawning in January 2010, in the form of 200K event. Nonplussed by a post that declared that ‘this event will separate the men from the boys’, Tate signed up. “I was going to be there for the women!” she chuckles today. The event was the start of Tate’s enduring role as a gender-bending Indian cyclist.
The year 2011 featured one of Tate’s greatest achievements, and as it happens, also a disappointment. She became the first Indian woman to qualify for the 1,200 km quadrennial event called Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) in France, the only female member in a team of 15. But she couldn’t complete the race, a fact that Tate looks back at with characteristic equanimity. “It is my most memorable cycling moment. That was a game-changer event for me, cycling with over 5,000 international cyclists in the oldest race in the world!” And her spirit was fed, often literally, by the support of the general populace along the event’s legendary route. “The people in the villages that you pass through stay out all night with soups, and coffee, and cake for the riders. It is an amazing experience!”
Tate continued to conquer higher limits in the following years, finishing with an overall 6 th position at the Desert 500K in 2013, cycling along the Thar from Bikaner to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. She became the second woman to finish the event and was one amongst the 10 people who completed the race that year. It is a time-limit achievement she hopes to better in the coming years.
Unsurprisingly, Divya Tate quotes the British cyclist courier and author, gender-stereotypes-breaker Emily Chappell as one of her greatest inspirations, a personal favourite for being a “super-fun, super-strong” cyclist. But Tate is also the first to acknowledge that as a woman there is an environment of discouragement in India, and elsewhere when it comes to cycling. “But I see it as another limit to push through!” she chuckles. Her solution to not enough women being out there cycling for joy, medals, or good health is etched in her own life story – get out there, push your limits, and see things change, slowly.
Tate’s life today is a curiously free-flowing but hyper busy whirlpool of pursuits. She left behind architecture to follow less constricted roles that have over the years meant lots of cycling, travel, writing (including many travelogues), training at the Japalouppe Equestrian Center near Pune, outdoor treks, camps, and organic farming to whet her taste for nature-based experiences. Then there is the Deccan Cliffhanger Ultra Race, a Pune-to-Goa event that Tate helped laying the foundation of, and which serves as a qualifier for the annual, 5,000 km-long ‘Race Across America’ (RAAM) in the US. Also, there is the mosaic work she is passionate about, with a workshop at home that has been waiting to receive greater attention. “There is a book too that has to come out some-time,” she adds. “But it is still inside. That’s my retirement plan!” In short, her plate is full.
It has been two years since the last time-controlled, long-distance cycling event for Tate, now in her 50 th year of life. She continues to cycle three-four times a week and has been busy organizing and guiding cycling events. But she is raring to go – her two road bikes, one mountain bike, and a basic Atlas bike (used for errands), always ready to be wheeled back onto the road. A long-distance cycle tour, in India and also somewhere in Europe, stands at the top of her ‘bucket list’. “I would also definitely like to do the Narmada Parikrama. Walk, not cycle!” she says.
Tate’s pioneering personal cycling saga and her recent organizing work make her one of the most authoritative voices on the cycling landscape in India. She has recently been involved actively in developing the cycling ecosystem in the country. “Six years ago, there was no ecosystem in place at all. It was all about understanding gear, equipment, nutrition, and training – the very basic stuff,” she recalls.
But things are on an uptick, with cycling even on crowded urban roads becoming a popular idea. “Even in my own organization (Inspire India), there are 37-38 towns and cities in India doing long-distance rides. It has been an exponential rise!” Tate has stoked the mainstreaming of the sport and general interest in cycling, but she also admits to being pushed to think of some other path-breaking work to realize in her life now. “As I said, I get off on the pioneering stuff!” she laughs.
Pulling more and more people into cycling is the bedrock of this ecosystem development effort that Tate’s part of. But this movement also involves human resource development – people who can coach the cyclists; nutritionists; bike mechanics; and more. Every cycling event, thus, provides an impetus for such a professional environment to gradually take hold, and grow.
A Word of Advice for Budding Cyclists
For new cyclists entering the fray, Divya Tate has good advice. “I tell people to start small; there is no harm in starting with an entry-level bike. It is a good idea to sign up with local groups, who can provide you cycles, set up a route, and provide a support vehicle. The moment you feel confident about doing it on your own, you will automatically gravitate towards it.” Tate credits the Internet for creating a buzzing communication network around cycling, a factor she reminisces she would have loved to have taken advantage of. “The best thing to engage with is to have fun, it doesn’t have to do with achieving anything. I did not have any goals; I could sustain cycling for so many years only because I really enjoyed what I did!”
But what Divya Tate really looks back on and is most heartened by is that the perspective that cycling has provided her over the decades. “I enjoyed my own cycling for many years. And not only did it give me joy, it also gave me a great sense of resolve, a great perspective on the world, on the environment, politics, philosophy, and more. You have a lot of time to think when you are on the bike!” she laughs.
Divya Tate can be the gregarious ambassador of the #Livingit movement. She continues to live a life that is unburdened by any limits of age or circumstance. Her laughter is infectious, her humility refreshing. “We end up doing a lot of things just to get by in life. It is good to have something that allows you to live your passions, your interests. I really think people need that in this day and age,” she says.